Making Friends With Gene Luen Yang

Dear Readers,

Do you like comic books and graphic novels? Wouldn’t you love to meet a famous comic book artist or an award-winning graphic novelist? Better yet, wouldn’t you love to make friends with one and just say, “Hey, let’s hang out!”?

I would! My graphic novel hero is Gene Luen Yang, a two-time National Book Award Finalist. This distinction was given last week to his amazing new books, BOXERS & SAINTS, a historical fiction look at the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, told in two volumes, which came out last month.

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CONGRATULATIONS, Gene!!!

His book, AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, which I love too, was also honored as a National Book Award Finalist when it was published several years ago.

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Anyway, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on BOXERS & SAINTS, so I hit the “buy” button immediately. Then I got carried away, imagining that I could actually make friends with Gene Luen Yang—here’s how it would happen:

How to Make Friends With Gene Luen Yang

  1. Read Boxers & Saints.
  2. Give him a shout-out on Twitter: “@geneluenyang Hey Gene! I just got my copies of B&S! Can I interview u for my blog when I’m done?”
  3. Wait for his reply: “@lenorelook Lenore! My kids love Alvin Ho. I’d love to talk.”
  4. Blink.
  5. Breathe in.
  6. Breathe out.
  7. Oh boy, I’m in trouble now. This guy has won the Michael L. Printz Award. He’s a two-time National Book Award Finalist. He did the comics continuation of AVATAR: THE LAST OF THE AIR BENDERS, which was a Nickelodean TV series, then a movie.
  8. PANIC!!!! WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO???
  9. I better have some super-duper firecracker questions for him, or else!!!
  10. Quadruple check for typos!!!
  11. Remember to say THANK YOU!!!
  12. Bend deeply at the waist and say THANK YOU again and again!

The problem was, I didn’t imagine it. It actually happened!!!

So here’s my interview with Gene, who, while receiving sqillions of congratulatory emails from all over the galaxy, surprised me with his thoughtful and generous answers to my questions. THANK YOU, Gene!!!

L: Thank you, Gene, for agreeing to be interviewed! You’re a real inspiration to me, and I hope that my young readers will pick up your work and love them as much as I do. Many of them tell me that they want to be authors, but I suspect that what they truly want to do is create comic books and graphic novels like you. In fact, I’ve seen some of their marvelous comic strips and books, often starring Alvin Ho, when I visit schools. So I’d love for them to get to know who you are and what inspires you.

First, what were you like as a child?

G: I was a cookie-cutter nerd.  I loved comic books.  I wore my hair in that classic bowl style.  I had respiratory problems.  I couldn’t dribble a basketball to save my life.

L: What kind of hobbies did you have when you were a little boy?

G: Comics were my biggest hobby.  I loved collecting them, reading them, and making them.  In fifth grade, this kid named Jeremy and I began creating comic books together.  They were about this superhero called Spade Hunter, who was sort of like Robin Hood, only instead of a bow and arrows he had a giant discus of death that he would throw at people’s heads. We thought he was awesome.  Jeremy’s mom would photocopy them for us and we would sell them at school for 50 cents an issue.  If you count the issues our moms bought, I think we made $8.  Jeremy’s since stopped making comics.  He’s now a radiologist living in Hawaii.  And – let’s be honest – radiology instead of comics was probably the smart choice.

Besides comics, I used to build Legos with my younger brother, program little games on my Apple IIe, and fold robots out of binder paper.  Like I said, cookie-cutter nerd.

L: Do you have any hobbies now?

G: I have four kids.  I barely have time to wash my hands after I go to the bathroom, let alone do a hobby.  (Notice I said “barely,” which means I do, in fact, wash my hands after going to the bathroom.)

But let’s pretend my kids are magical and can feed and clothe and house themselves with their own magical-ness, and every morning a silver-maned unicorn takes them to school in Magicland where there is never, ever any trouble of any sort.  In such a situation, I would love to brew root beer.  I don’t know how to brew root beer, mind you, because I have no time because my kids are not magical.  But if they were, I’d choose root beer brewing as a hobby.

L: Did your parents encourage you to be artistic?

G: My mom was cautiously encouraging.  She’s always been artistic.  She was never formally trained, but she used to draw pictures for me when I was really little.  Her older sister is an accomplished Chinese brush painter, so art runs in that side of the family.

My dad… my dad’s more practical.  He was always worried about me feeding myself.  He’s happy about my career now, but when I was starting out he probably would’ve liked it if I’d chosen radiology over cartooning.

L: Did your parents allow you to read comic books?

G: Not when I was in elementary school.  Jeremy and I used to get our parents to drop us off at the local library.  After they drove away, we would walk 20 minutes to the nearest comic book store.  We’d buy everything we could from the quarter bin, then go back to the library.  We’d check out these giant books to hide our comics in so we could take them home.  My mom would say, “Wow, I didn’t know you were so interested in Egyptology.”  I’d nod my head and stay quiet.

By high school, though, my parents had given up on trying to keep comic books out of the house.  The first trip I made after getting my driver’s license was to the comic book store.

L: Did you have a favorite book as a child?

G: I loved anything by Beverly Cleary.  I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three series.  And I also loved this series that nobody remembers about a genius kid named Alvin Fernald, written by Clifford Hicks.

And, if you haven’t figured out already, I loved reading comic books.  I read mostly Marvel as a kid, Fantastic Four and Spider-man and the Avengers.

L: What inspired you as a child, and what inspires you now? 

G: As a kid, I was inspired by the things that surrounded me: my family, my friends, my comic books.  I don’t think much has changed for me as an adult.  All of my story ideas come from the people and stories around me. 
L: It must be awesome to have a comic book/graphic novelist dad, do your kids jump in and give you guidance and suggestions in your work?
G: Ha ha.  I’m not sure if my kids think it’s all that awesome to have a comic book guy as a dad.  It’s really hard to impress your own kids because they see you every day.  It’s much easier to impress strangers, people who haven’t seen you pick spinach out of your teeth.  My oldest does like to give me advice. When he was five, he offered to teach me how to draw horses.  He was right.  I’m terrible at drawing horses.

L: What is your favorite family story?

G: My brother and I used to play “the farting game” when we were little.  You know about that?  Ask any male in your life.  They played it when they were kids.  If they say they didn’t, they’re lying.

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Gene & his little bro, Jon, surviving in the desert.

L: Describe your most memorable teacher.

G:  Mr. Matsuoka was my high school computer science teacher.  He was a really amazing guy.  He gave compelling lectures and seemed to know exactly when to give his students that extra kick in the butt.  He inspired me to become a teacher.  I taught high school computer science for 14 years using Mr. Matsuoka’s curriculum.

L: Do you listen to music when you’re working?

G: When I’m writing, I can’t listen to anything.  It has to be silent.  When I’m drawing, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks.  I love the Freakonomics podcast, Writing Excuses, Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, and the iFanboy podcasts.

L: Do you have a favorite character or hero?

G: Mr. Miracle, the greatest escape artist ever. He’s part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World in the DC Comics Universe.  As a baby, he was traded by his father to his father’s mortal enemy as part of an interplanetary peace agreement.  So much pathos.

L: What does your workspace look like?

G: I work in a spare bedroom in my home.  In one corner is an old drawing table that my parents bought me from Costco when I was in high school.  In the other is a giant desk I got from my brother, with a Mac Mini and a Wacom Cintiq tablet.

L: Why do you write graphic novels?

G: I want to tell stories with pictures.  I like that interplay between word and image.

L: Do you do every step of the process yourself, the writing, the drawing and design, the lettering, the coloring?

G: Depends on the project.  For some, like American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, I do everything but the coloring.  (Both of those projects were colored by the immensely talented Lark Pien, author of the esteemed Long Tail Kitty.) For others, like Level Up and the Avatar: The Last Airbender books, I just do the writing.

L: How long does it usually take from beginning to end?

G: American Born Chinese took five years.  Boxers & Saints took six.

L: Which part of the process do you enjoy the most? The least?

G:  Writing is the most psychologically draining.  I don’t know what your experience is, but writing for me is this constant wrestling match with self-doubt.

Drawing is the most time-consuming.  A page can take me from four to eight hours to complete.  Drawing comics will eat your life.

Inking is probably my favorite step.  The hard parts are over.  Inking’s relaxing.

L: I absolutely LOVED BOXERS & SAINTS, and could not put it down. And when I finally did, I was not the same as when I started. My view of China, Chinese identity, western influence in China, and even war itself, was changed. What inspired you to tackle the Boxer Rebellion?

G:  Wow.  Thank you!  I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints.  I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community, so naturally my home church was super-excited about the Vatican’s announcement.  They had special masses and celebrations and awesome food.  The festivities inspired me to look into the lives of the newly canonized, and I discovered that many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion.

L: As we see the Boxer Rebellion develop through the eyes of two young children, who then get caught up in the escalation of violence through their teen years, you help us become completely empathetic to both sides. After finishing BOXERS (Chinese nationalists), I was certain SAINTS (Chinese Christians) were going to be the bad guys. But I was wrong. Though the boxer and saint are on opposing sides of the conflict, their stories are the same. Their beliefs and visions, though known by different names, are the same. And their goal – to save and protect the people they love – is the same. There were no villains to hate or blame, only a terrifying situation with complex human beings who were doing the best they can, and who paid an extraordinary price for it. Was this what you wanted your reader to see?

G:  The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more conflicted I felt.  I couldn’t decide who the good guys were.  The two-volume nature of the project came out of that ambivalence.  I sympathized with both sides.  In many ways, they seemed to be reflections of each other.

L: I felt you not only gave us access to a pivotal moment in Chinese history, but also a prism for viewing present day conflicts and political relationships. Am I right, or am I completely misreading it?

G: There are many, many parallels between the Boxer Rebellion and current events, especially what’s happening in the Middle East.  Today’s young men who join extremist groups have a lot in common with the Boxers.  Those parallels appeared pretty early in my research.

L: How did you create these multi-dimensional and deeply spiritual protagonists and keep them true to their time and culture?

G: I don’t know if I’m all that true to their time and culture.  I tried.  This was my first researched project, and by the end I realized that I’m not a great researcher.  Early on in the project, I had this fear that some historian would call me out on all my inaccuracies.  (In fact, that’s kind of already happened.)

I got over my fear by making a realization: In Boxers & Saints, I’m not trying to recreate turn-of-the-century China, I’m trying to create a cohesive cartoon world based on turn-of-the-century China.  The world has to hang together as a whole.  In fiction, even historical fiction, that’s more important than stone-cold accuracy.

L: Although you’re a contemporary American-born Chinese/Taiwanese, how much of you is in your characters?

G: I put a piece of me in every one of my protagonists.  I don’t really know how to write any other way.

L: What part of them can you not identify with?

G: I don’t know. All their virtues and their sins are understandable to me.  Not justifiable, of course, but understandable.  Like I said, I don’t know how to write any other way.

L: Gish Jen, in her volume of lectures, TIGER WRITING, quotes writer Andrew Lam, saying, “ . . . if American fairy tales are in the business of protecting children from the reality of a cold and belligerent world, Japanese fairy tales told through certain genre of mangas and animes are doing quite the opposite: preparing their charges for the day in which their normal and seemingly sunny life may be abruptly thrown into complete chaos and destruction.” Where do you see your work on that spectrum?

G: Boxers & Saints is definitely my bleakest, most violent work.  In general, though, I have a hard time writing endings of pure happiness.  I guess I don’t believe pure happiness exists on this side of the grave.  That probably puts me closer to the Japanese end of the spectrum.

L: Do you have any advice for young readers who want to become creators of comic books or graphic novels?

G:  Read and write and draw constantly.  Then read some more.  Then write some more.  Then draw some more.

L: What does it feel like to be a TWO-TIME National Book Award Finalist???!!!

G:  Here’s the official statement I made:

Thank you, National Book Foundation, for changing my life twice.  I am deeply honored to be recognized by an organization that does so much for American storytelling culture.

But here’s what I actually wanted say:

AAAAAAHHHHHH MMMMMMMAAAAA GGGGGGGAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

L: And because no self-respecting Asian conversation can end without a mention of food . . . If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

G:  Magic ice cream that changes flavor each day.  Because that sort of ice cream exists in a world magical enough to force me to eat only one thing for the rest of my life.

L: And finally, because I started with the topic of making friends with you, what are Gene Luen Yang’s rules for making friends?

G:  You have to be awesome.  Awesome enough to, say, write a bestselling children’s series about a neurotic Asian American kid.

L: Wow. Thanks SO much!!!

G: Thank YOU!!!

So there you have it, everybody, my new friend, Gene Luen Yang. He ROCKS!!! Read his books. They’re AWESOME!!!

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